Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lenten material: St. John of the Cross on the problems beginners have in the spiritual life

The other day I made a post on some suggested spiritual reads and audio books for Lent.  I neglected to point out something from the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross - his discussion of the problems found in beginners of the spiritual life. This has nothing to do with age, and one could be prayerful for years and not progress.

God leads souls into the dark night after they respond to grace and take prayer life more serious.  He leads souls into the stage that St. John refers to as, "beginner."  They are beginning to grow spiritually and prayerfully towards the stage he calls, "proficient" (already contemplative). All of this is on the path to divine union with God in our earthly life towards a state of perfection.

In Book 1 of the Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross discusses these problems of beginners.  Most everyone commits some of these faults until they learn to recognize them and temper them with virtues and God's grace.  God makes these things visible for us as we learn to be still and silent.  This is why if our prayer is limited to vocal prayer and discursive meditation, and we spend no time in silent, contemplative prayer, the voice of God is hindered by the noise we produce and allow into our lives.

We can predispose ourselves to contemplative prayer (sometimes referred to as mental prayer), but only God's grace can pull us deeply into it.  We do this by setting time aside to give ourselves entirely to him, even if only for 15 minutes daily. If we cannot make it to Eucharistic Adoration, we can light a candle in a quiet corner of a home, close our eyes, and just let go of the world and our thoughts, lifting our hearts in love for God, and nothing more. Praying this way, giving our hearts to God and looking for nothing in return, not even so much as consolations or good feelings, is much like a child who is content to snuggle next to a mother or father.  Just as the parent gets satisfaction from this moment, so does God when we likewise give him our time.  This is where one's prayer life begins to blossom.  God shines a light on things he wants us to learn about ourselves and him.

In paragraph 2709, from the section on expressions of prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read:

What is contemplative prayer? St. Teresa answers: "Contemplative prayer [oracion mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us." Contemplative prayer seeks him "whom my soul loves." It is Jesus, and in him, the Father. We seek him, because to desire him is always the beginning of love, and we seek him in that pure faith which causes us to be born of him and to live in him. In this inner prayer we can still meditate, but our attention is fixed on the Lord himself.

So, what are these problems of beginners that St. John of the Cross identifies?
  • Spiritual Pride 
  • Spiritual Lust 
  • Spiritual Anger 
  • Spiritual Envy
  • Spiritual Sloth  

I could go through and explain these, but I think it would be a pity to reduce them to a definition.  Therefore, I'm going to encourage you to blow the dust off your copy of Dark Night of the Soul if you have it, and just go through Book 1.  This would make for great spiritual reflection during Lent. 

If you do not have a copy, you can pick it up your local Catholic book store as it is a classic.  I prefer the translation published by the translation published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies. However, if you are short on funds, you can find the Peers translation online.  Here is Book 1 (sometimes referred to as Book the First).  The chapters are brief - just a few pages at most.  This makes it suitable for reading one short chapter per day then pondering it throughout the day.  Start from the beginning of Book 1 and work your way up. The online version goes into Book 2 from a link at the bottom of Book 1. 

If something you read prompts you to want to go to Confession, it's possible today that you will encounter a priest who does not have the background in the Dark Night of the Soul.  If a priest makes you feel uncomfortable confessing such things, look for another priest, if possible.  One strategy is to contact a local Carmel and find out who they recommend seeing in the diocese.  I did that, and was told to go to Assumption Grotto where Fr. Perrone, a diocesan priest, was also himself a secular Carmelite and chaplain to the community that meets there.  We also have the priests of the Holy Cross who are very well steeped in this spirituality.  

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The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church;
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